Bike Diplomacy: Promoting American Culture and Education in Turkmenistan

By: J.R. deLara, Information Officer, U.S. Embassy Ashgabat, Turkmenistan.

Information Officer J.R. deLara in front of the Kopetdag Mountains, during a cross-Turkmenistan public outreach bike trip. (Photo courtesy of Alex Koch)

Sometimes diplomacy means taking a message directly to the people, even if you need to bike across the country to do it.

Information Officer J.R. deLara in front one of Turkmenistan’s distinctive yurts, during a cross-country public outreach bike trip. (Photo courtesy of Alex Koch)

Starting April 1, I undertook a two-week bike trip across Turkmenistan, a former Soviet state just north of Iran and Afghanistan, to promote American education and media. It can be a difficult place to do public diplomacy. People are separated by vast stretches of the Karakum desert, while low internet penetration and state-run media make it difficult to reach them.

Despite these challenges, people here are eager to learn more about American educational opportunities and to hear the American perspective on events — both missing from local news.

In recent years, the Government of Turkmenistan began promoting a series of cycling events in the country. These events referenced the historic Silk Road — the series of trade routes connecting East and West, which ran through modern-day Turkmenistan.

Just as goods were traded along the Silk Road, so were ideas. I started promoting the cross-country bike trip as a new journey along the Silk Road — a way to share American culture, opportunities, and perspectives with fellow travelers along the historic trade route.

Information Officer J.R. deLara and a cycling companion hand out American books in Turkmen outside the village of Bamy. (Photo courtesy of Nathalie Louge)

During the 850-mile ride, I was accompanied by three personal friends — one American, one German, and one Turkmen. In four cities along the way, we sought out and met with Turkmen who had previously studied in the United States or worked with American organizations. It’s important to maintain these relationships, as alumni of U.S. programs often become strong partners in the future.

In two cities, we gave public presentations in English on cycling and U.S. educational opportunities, drawing hundreds of interested listeners, many of whom may have never met an American. And along the way, we handed out American publications in Turkmen, the local language, including recently translated versions of To Kill a Mockingbird and Where the Red Fern Grows. For many, this was their first opportunity to read American literature in their own language.

The National Security Strategy says that diplomats should “facilitate the cultural, educational, and people-to-people exchanges that create the networks of current and future political, civil society, and educational leaders who will extend a free and prosperous world.”

In my job as a public diplomacy officer, I try to find unique and effective ways to create those networks. Sometimes that means hopping on a bike.

Editor’s Note: This entry originally appeared on DipNote, the U.S. Department of State’s official blog.

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